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Fur, feathers, fish, and fun! The best places to see animals near Boston

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Is there anything more magical than a small child seeing her first majestic tiger, or gigantic elephant? Zoos, aquariums, and petting zoos are so much fun for small children to explore, and there’s so much to learn from observing (and perhaps handling) all of the amazing critters: kids learn fascinating info about animals, gain appreciation for caring for the environment, and get some exercise and fresh air while bonding with the family. Here are a few of our favorites!

 

New England Aquarium, Boston

zoos turtleKind of an obvious choice: this world-class aquarium is one of the most beloved tourist destinations in the northeast (I used to go on school trips here all the way from southern Connecticut!), and it provides an unforgettable experience for visitors of all ages, bringing in over 1.3 million people to admire their collection of oceanic wildlife. NEAQ is dedicated to conservation and educational efforts, and provides a lot of entertainment to go along with the education.

Along with the sheer breathtaking delight of having a giant sea turtle skim past you in the famous enormous circle tank (the biggest in the world when it was built in 1970), you can introduce your kids to a dizzying variety of ocean and freshwater fish, adorable penguins, gorgeous jellyfish, and, at the end of the tour, trained fur seals and sea lions. There’s a touch tank where you can pet rays (who actually appear to enjoy being touched) and tiny sharks (which will mostly ignore you). Try to get there during penguin feeding – it’s a riot!

Southwick’s Zoo, Mendon

zoos giraffeThis family-operated zoo began with a hobby: established as a farm in 1803, the homestead began to attract interest when farmer Justin F. Southwick started collecting exotic poultry. His son followed in his footsteps, becoming an expert on migratory waterfowl, and began exhibiting birds and other animals in 1963.

Originally considered rather humble, Southwick’s is now a delightful place to visit, with over 500 animals, and visitingnewengland.com describes it as “beautiful-looking, well-taken care of, and, ultimately, a first-class zoo destination.” Along with a collection that includes both the expected (giraffes, lions, tigers, kangaroos) and the less familiar (what’s an “aoudad”?), they have a 15-minute Skyfari gondola ride that takes you over the entire park – super fun!

 

Zoo New England: Franklin Park and Stone Zoo

zoos red pandaFranklin Park Zoo was established in 1912, and forms the end of Boston’s famous Emerald Necklace. A revitalization project that began in the 70s has transformed it into a terrific destination, probably best known for their Western Lowland Gorillas and their Children’s Zoo, which is currently being renovated to establish the new Nature’s Neighborhoods exhibit, opening in 2017. Nature’s Neighborhoods will encourage hands-on, self-directed “adventure play” where kids can explore the roles that living creatures (including humans) play in their environments. And there will be red pandas!

Stone Zoo is a bit smaller, and has less of the most impressive large animal species, but since 2000, they’ve added some terrific exhibits, including outdoor exhibitions featuring birds of prey, an open-air environment for gibbons, and a seasonal alligator exhibit. It’s also a great spot to visit around the holidays – ZooLights turns the entire zoo into a winter wonderland, complete with reindeer!

Finally, for a truly special experience at the zoo, how about a Snorin’ Roarin’ Sleepover? These events, held at both zoo locations, seem like the ultimate birthday present for an animal-loving kid who already has all the toys he could possibly want. Participants get to explore behind the scenes, enjoy presentations from the zookeepers, and get introduced up close and personal to exotic animals. Plus, lots of the creatures in the zoo are more active after dark!

 

Drumlin Farm Wildlife Sanctuary, Lincoln

zoos owlsThis top-rated tourist spot combines a working farm with a wildlife sanctuary: kids can see farm animals in their enclosures, and then observe plants and animals in their natural setting. Reviewers praise the cozy, old-fashioned, chilled-out feel of Drumlin: you can apparently meet a farmer who will tell you all of the names of the animals, and wander freely around the grounds (which include multiple playgrounds for kids to shake out a little extra energy).

A native wildlife exhibit features owls, a fox, and deer. There’s even a “learning garden” where kids can learn about composting and get their hands dirty! Teacher-naturalists run drop-in activities, and there are regular hayrides throughout the warmer months. Finally, don’t leave without visiting the seasonal farmstand – they sell vegetables, eggs, meat, yarn and fleece, and more. It’s all a great way to teach kids where their food comes from!

 

Chip In Farm Petting Zoo, Bedford

zoos squareThis wonderful hidden jewel comes highly rated by Magic Beans staff: it’s family-owned and operated, and Chip In is famous for their fresh eggs, along with lots of other tasty treats (including penny candy!).

You can pet friendly goats, cows, sheep, bunnies, and chickens, and feed them veggie scraps provided for free – the employees will hand your child a basket to fill with animal food. The petting zoo pig is apparently impressively gigantic, and the whole experience has a lovely old-fashioned feel.

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